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Virginia Sweetspire

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Picture of Virginia sweetspire in fall.

Picture of Virginia sweetspire shrub in fall.

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Plant Taxonomy of Virginia Sweetspire:

Plant taxonomy classifies Virginia sweetspire (sometimes misspelled as Virginia "sweet spire") or "Virginia-willow" as Itea virginica. 'Henry's Garnet,' 'Little Henry' and 'Merlot' are popular cultivars; I myself grow Itea virginica 'Merlot.'

Plant Type:

Virginia sweetspires are deciduous flowering shrubs.

Characteristics of Itea Virginica:

'Merlot' Virginia sweetspire shrubs reach about 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide at maturity. A late spring / early summer bloomer, this bush produces racemes of small, white flowers on arching branches. I find the mildly fragrant flowers to have a "woodsy" smell. But these plants are valued more for their deep-red fall foliage than for either the appearance or the aroma of their blossoms.

Planting Zones for Virginia Sweetspire Shrubs:

Itea virginica is indigenous to eastern North America and can be grown in planting zones 5-9.

Sun and Soil Requirements:

Grow Virginia sweetspire shrubs in full sun to partial shade and in a soil amended with humus. Superior flowering, compactness and fall color will be achieved in full sun. Although these bushes are considered plants tolerant of wet ground, you should nonetheless ensure that the soil is well-drained for Itea virginica.

Outstanding Characteristic:

Undoubtedly, the outstanding feature of Virginia sweetspires is the burgundy color of their autumn leaves, as the cultivar name 'Merlot' suggests. I certainly wouldn't grow these bushes for their blossoms alone, although the fact that they do bear numerous flower heads is a nice bonus.

Uses for Virginia Sweetspire Shrubs:

Itea virginica forms a dense mass of leaves, making the bushes effective in shrub borders or foundation plantings. An understory plant in the wild that naturalizes easily in the landscape, this shrub can also be used in woodland gardens, although with excessive shade you'll sacrifice some color. While its root-suckering can be a nuisance, this very attribute qualifies it as an excellent plant for erosion control.

Care:

Water Virginia sweetspire shrubs well when young, to get them established. Once established, they are reasonably drought-tolerant shrubs. Stay ahead of any root-suckering that may occur if you don't wish for your bushes to spread. Prune to remove any dead wood you find in spring on your Itea virginica. Here in zone 5, my bush experiences several inches of winter dieback on the tops of the branches (they turn a tannish color). This is unfortunate, since the bush blooms on old wood.



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